Road trips

Neh 8:1-10, 1 Cor 12:12-31, Luke 4:14-21

Let’s take today’s readings and look at them in chronological order. First we have Nehemiah. The people are gathered together and the Law of the Lord, as given to Moses, is read out, and, importantly, explained, by the Levites – the clergy of their day. The people are being brought back to the basics, to the foundation documents of their nation, their faith. And these are also foundations of our faith, and of the legal system of our nation.

The people were greatly moved by all they heard, and began to weep and be sad. Why was that?

Maybe their conscience was being convicted of all their failures to follow God’s law. Maybe they could see that God was so loving that God had a great plan for them, and they had somehow failed to grasp it, and hence were no longer living in the beautiful fullness of life that God had marked out for them. Continue reading

Many years ago…

Sermon Christmas 2018 St Chad’s Linwood.

Reverend Felicity O’Brien

Hello, my name is Naomi. I live in a small town in Judea, only a day’s walk from the big city of Jerusalem. I want to tell you about something that happened when I was young, when Quirinius was the governor, one of those Romans we have to put up with.

My husband Nathan came home from the marketplace one day, and told me to expect visitors.

Why? I said. Apparently the Roman emperor had ordered everyone to go back to the town where they were born, to register so they could be taxed. Typical Romans. Well, with the good Roman roads that we had – there had to be something good about the occupation – more people had been travelling away from their hometown, so, when I thought about it, I realised that there might be quite a lot of people coming back. I started to think about all my friends who had left, and hoped I would see them again. I prepared the guest room on the roof of our house.

The month came for the registration, and sure enough, people came flooding in. Our good friends David and Miriam came back, and we were so excited to see them, and we were glad we had saved the guest room for them, because the town was full to overflowing.

The night after they arrived, Nathan said to me, you know who we haven’t seen? My cousin Joseph. He was born here. He’s a few years older than me. Do you remember him?

Not really, I said. What did he do?

He was a carpenter. He went up north somewhere, looking for work. I think he ended up in the Galilee area.

Well, he can’t stay here, I said. The guest room is full.

The next day it was getting dark when I heard a knock at the door. Nathan went to answer it – Joseph! He said, delighted! I was hoping I’d see you – I didn’t know…

Nathan called for me to come and meet him.

Nathan and Naomi, this is my wife, Mary, the visitor said proudly. The girl – and she was a girl too, very young, looked exhausted, slumped on the donkey like a pile of clothes. As she got down, it was clear that she was really pregnant, and needed to rest.

Oh dear, I said. We have nowhere to put you. The guest room is already full. But come in and we’ll find you a meal.

Nathan led the donkey into our stable, which was attached to the house, the way we all had them in those days. That way the animals were safe at night, and would keep the house warm, if a bit ripe! Their food trough was on the higher level of the floor where our living quarters were.

As Joseph and Mary came in, she winced, and bent over.

I thought you were close to your time, I said to her.

She smiled at me, and for a first-time mum without her own mother nearby, she seemed surprisingly calm.

This baby is special, she whispered to me.

They all are, dear, I replied.

I made her comfortable as her contractions got stronger, and the men kept out of the way, with Joseph casting worried glances every time she groaned. Between contractions she told me a strange and wonderful story about an angel, and a baby who would be the son of God! At first I thought she was delirious, but then I caught Joseph’s eye, and he nodded, and said, yes, the angel spoke to me too.

This baby is God’s son!

I didn’t know what to do with this information, but Mary kept on labouring, and I called my friend who had helped at many births over. Something odd happened though – she examined Mary to see how near the baby was, ad she whispered to me that Mary was still a virgin! That was strange. But then I remembered what she’d told me about the angel, and it all started to make sense.

Not long after she gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. Joseph was delighted, and we were all relieved both mother and baby were well. Mary wrapped him up the usual way, and then when she needed to rest, looked around for somewhere to put him down. The only place that was off the ground was the manger on the edge of the stable portion, full of fresh hay for our cow and donkey. It looked nice and soft, and the baby would be safe and warm there, so Mary and Joseph put him there to sleep. The animals came over and sniffed, but backed away, and it was odd but they seemed to bow their heads to the baby.

Then I caught sight of a bright light outside. Oh no, not lightning. We don’t need thunder waking up the baby or Mary.

But there was no thunder, just a rustling, fluttering sound. It looked like big white birds, and they were singing! Now I was seeing things I thought. It had been a long day. I went to bed, but had no sooner got comfortable when there was a pounding on the door. Not another visitor, I grumbled. We’re already full-up, and then some.

Nathan opened it to see a group of shepherds, grubby and uncomfortable about waking us up. They stammered out some story about a cloud of angels singing to them, telling them that the son of God had been born and was lying asleep in a manger, of all places, and could they come and see him please?

I felt a tingle down my spine as Nathan motioned for them to come into the stable. There, the animals were asleep, Mary and Joseph were dozing, and the little baby was lying in the manger. He opened his eyes and waved his hands in

the air, eyes wide, taking it all in. His nose wrinkled and he sneezed at the strong smell of sheep and no baths from the shepherds! Everyone laughed, and they were spell-bound by this new baby, and knelt down and worshipped him.

I thought I’d better take a closer look at the child, – he certainly sneezed like a normal little one -and I was surprised to see that he had a sort of glow about him. A sense of peace, of timelessness seemed to surround him, and I knelt and worshipped him too.

When Mary was up to it, the new family found a proper place to stay, and Joseph took on some work. Then there were more visitors to the town – wise men, stargazers from far away. They had come to worship the baby too. I only heard about their visit later, because straight after it, Joseph put Mary and the baby on a donkey and left town in the middle of the night. That was just before that maniac Herod came into the town doing evil things.

Over the years, I often wondered about Mary and Joseph and their little baby. They called him Jesus, which means God saves. Surely if he was the son of God he would save us from the Roman occupation? I certainly hoped so. I did hear about the next part of his life later on, but I’ll save that story for another day.

Let us pray.

Loving God, we give thanks to you for sending Jesus among us, born as an ordinary baby, experiencing human life as we do. Thank you for the gift of love and peace that he brings into the world. May we show others that same love this Christmas tide, and ever more.

Amen.

Let there be peace shared among us

Sermon Sunday 30 September St Chad’s, also POT Friday 28 September

John said to Jesus, teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

This is the opening line of today’s Gospel reading. It’s not about casting out demons. The work that the other follower of Jesus was doing is not relevant here – John is not rejoicing that other people outside the first circle of disciples, and the next group of followers, have been understanding who Jesus is and what he is all about, and acting in his name.

No, John is complaining about the work of the other person, but rather smugly I think, saying that they tried to stop him, expecting Jesus to pat him on the head and say, well done, we can’t have amateurs taking up the message.

John, like so many of the disciples, so much of the time, has got it wrong. He may not have been prepared for what Jesus said next. ‘Don’t worry about it – if they’re not against us, they’re for us.’

He points out that the very act of invoking Jesus’ name to deliver someone from a demon meant that the person had faith in him, and was not about to turn around and attack or denounce him.

The disciples were being taught a lesson about the message, about the Good News. The were being shown that they were no longer in control of it! In our context, you could say that the Good News had gone viral! It was being spread without the disciples being in control of it, and that made them uneasy.

The kingdom of God has the power to make us uneasy. It can convict us where we don’t act according to its values – where we are not who we claim to be.

Jesus goes on to teach about the new believers – he calls them the little ones. It’s a tender way of referring to them, with all the care and love that should be lavished on children. Maybe the disciples were expecting to be told to get out there and if not stamp out the teaching that hadn’t come from the core group, to at least make sure it was right on the nail, that there were no inconsistencies or heresies creeping in.

But Jesus is aware of their desire to challenge the newbies. That’s what he meant by a stumbling block.

Some years ago my husband attended his first Cursillo course, while he was a student at Bible college, and wrestling with details of theology on a day-to-day basis. At Cursillo, various people had to give a talk about aspects of faith. Kevin was bemused to discover that there was a very wide understanding of theology, from the more-or-less what you might expect, to the downright wacky. But what really struck him was that God seemed to be able to work through all the talks, through all the speakers, touching hearts and lives even if the theology was a bit off. Kevin came away with a deeper understanding of the power of the Holy Spirit, in spite of people’s fumblings for meaning and understanding of this thing called faith.

Let’s have another look at the text. In verses 43-47 Jesus talks about how if a part of your body causes you to sin, to stumble, you should cut it off, because it’s better to enter heaven incomplete than go to hell with all your parts intact.

Have you seen the add for Specsavers, where people are asked how much money they would sell their eyes for? The subjects get really upset at the thought of losing their sight, and realise that sight is priceless. And yet here Jesus is telling the disciples to get rid of an eye if it causes you to sin! This passage is one of the reasons why we don’t take all of the Bible literally.

Jewish rhetoric and storytelling had a long tradition of exaggeration. ‘I have told you a million times not to exaggerate’ – was probably a Jewish joke long before I heard it.

Jesus uses colourful language so it will catch, so the lesson won’t be forgotten. It worked – Mark included it in his Gospel, and it has entered our language as a figure of speech, both as a complete idea, and in a short form.

Have you ever heard yourself saying “cut it out” to someone? I have said it to my kids, and my neighbour says it – often – to her dog.

What we can really take from this idea is that if something in our life causes us to stumble, to falter in our Christian walk, that thing needs to be removed. If looking at a certain website might tempt us into sin, we need to keep away from it. Or at least put on an ad block – I had to ask my daughter how to do that when I got sick of being offered a Russian woman! I’m sure you can think of other examples.

It’s a good habit to bring the day to God in prayer before you go to sleep. A sort of re-run with freeze-frames, and time to see things in another light. Often, if we listen the Holy Spirit will point out when we could have handled things better, we could have made better choices. But it’s not all about correction – it’s not like the last ten minutes of Masterchef which I always seem to find myself watching as I wait for the next programme to come on. God also gives us nudges in the right direction, and, most importantly, loves us, unconditionally, and tells us that, if we take time to listen.

After Jesus has finished the picture about removing parts of our anatomy, he tells the disciples that it is better to go into heaven with something missing than to be cast into everlasting fire, to Gehenna. This was a real place. On the south western corner of Jerusalem there was a large rubbish dump, smouldering with fire, where the city’s waste was dumped, and by Jesus’ time it also stood as a metaphor for hell-fires. Jesus foretold that the whole city would end up like that, if they didn’t follow his way of peace. This takes the story back to the passage before it, where the disciples were squabbling about who would be the greatest.

Jesus knew that they needed to be at peace with each other in order to show that peace to the world. He uses the image of salt – we are encouraged to have salt in us. Well, we do, our blood and our sweat contain salt, and we need to eat a little every day to keep healthy. But again, it’s not literal. You can get into so much trouble with the Bible of you take it all literally. By salt Jesus is referring to its properties – salt does many things. It adds flavour and makes bland food taste better. We can make bland lifeless days better by being the salt in them. It also preserves food by keeping out the bacteria – if we are being salt in our communities we are keeping out the bad, fighting for justice and help for those who need it. By sharing and doing and being the Gospel, by being real live examples of love in action.

What can we take from this text?

First, that the Good news will spread if we let it, and in ways that we never imagined, and that we shouldn’t try to stop it, or to control it.

Second, that we need to remove things that are harmful from our lives, to ‘cut it out’.

And finally, that we can bring it all to our loving God in prayer. And then, we will have the Holy Spirit with us, helping us to be the salt in our city, and to be at peace with one another.

The Lord is maker of all

Sermon Sept 9 2018 St Chad’s Linwood

Today’s readings are all familiar texts. None of them are obscure, with weird names that are unpronounceable. Yet such familiar stories can often wash over us.Yes, we say, I know the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman. I know she had a clever reply for Jesus.But let’s have a closer look at this story. Continue reading

A Prophet is without honour.

Have you ever had to stand up and give a speech in front of a home crowd? Maybe you were asked back to your old school as a guest to the assembly, or asked to speak at a family wedding. Maybe you spoke at a funeral.

We are always under the most scrutiny from those who know and love us the best. But it’s much easier to represent yourself as you want to be seen to a new audience. I remember my first day at university, feeling a tremendous sense of freedom, that I could be whoever I liked and that no one knew me from my days at primary school. Not like when I started at secondary school and a girl who knew me from before reminded me of the time I came to school with my shorty pyjama pants on under my uniform! It’s hard to stay dignified and authoritative when people see you as a disorganised child. Continue reading

God sees your heart

The kingdom of heaven isn’t like a human kingdom. It doesn’t depend on worldly wealth or power, on who has the largest army, or the most nuclear weapons. It doesn’t depend on who is the most charismatic leader, or the cleverest, or the richest. It’s not like earthly power structures.

God can see through the outward appearances – when he sent Samuel to anoint a new king, after Saul had proved disappointing, the obvious choice was rejected. Sure, Jesse’s first son Eliab was tall and good-looking, but he wasn’t the one. He may have had all the worldly attributes, and being the first-born has gone a long way to promoting someone’s chances of ruling. No, Samuel was instructed to look at the other promising boys, until he had gone down the line of all 7 of them. Imagine asking someone who has 7 kids if there are any others? It would be a bit odd wouldn’t it. But that’s all about God’s provision. Just when we think that the possibilities are exhausted, God has something new in store. Is there another also? Yes, but he’s working. Tending the sheep. I wonder why he wasn’t included in the original roll-call. Maybe he was too young and of too low a status to be considered. Maybe his mother was a concubine or slave, and he was relegated to second-best. He wasn’t even deemed worthy to come and join in the sacrifice. Continue reading

Unity

Sermon May 13
Rev Felicity O’Brien
Today’s Gospel is a remarkable passage. Jesus is praying extensively to his Father, not for himself and the journey he knows he has to undertake, but for his followers. His concern and compassion is for all those who have been listening to him and believing in him.
Jesus makes it clear that the disciples he is praying for belong to the father – They are yours, he says. Jesus is future-planning for the disciples – he knows that he is going away, and on Thursday we celebrated the ascension, when Jesus left the earth, as his disciples watched his feet disappearing into the clouds. He knows that the disciples will face huge challenges in the time to come, and asks God to protect them. He has a reason for that protection; ‘Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are One. Continue reading